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Real or Fake? Stuck in the Glitching Reality of Contemporary America

orrin hatch gif

While I was in my early thirties, my parents died in impolite succession. My mother first, in 2010, then my father in 2012. He was in his early eighties, but she was 16 years younger and had no business going anywhere. They passed the illness baton from one to the other, so that my mother died in midsummer and by the autumn we were back on the same floor of Charing Cross Hospital, with the same attendants wheeling the vital-signs trolley up to the bedside. Names in blue marker on a whiteboard behind the bed: patient, nurse, consultant.

Death runs like radioactive iodine through your sense of reality, allowing this reality to be looked at in high contrast, its structures glowing. It has a way of making things very true, but also, somehow, less real. There are many merciless truths: my parents never put their key in the front door, never walk into a room, never send birthday cards. They’re never waiting at the airport. They don’t sleep. They don’t tap on the back of ketchup bottles or mispronounce words. At the same time, the truth that they don’t do any of this feels less than real. I mean, just look: there they are. They have posthumous opinions on the news; they roll their eyes. I think up puns and my mother laughs at them. She is excited to hear that Lily Tomlin has a sitcom on Netflix. “Ooh, great!” she says, knowing improbably about Netflix.

Bereavement not only highlights the materials from which reality is made, but transports you into a new one. The change is as clean as the flicking of a light switch, although whether it has been turned on or off is unclear. It can feel like the lights have gone up after a great party, while also being a plunge into the dark. Those who are precious migrate, as fast as the flick of a light, from the outside to the inside of life. They don’t trip your senses by hugging you, or by swinging into view over the crest of the road. You stop seeing that car, unmissable among all the others, even at a distance, with its two unmistakeable thumbprint silhouettes, side by side. Instead they live, at least part-time, in your mind ’s electro-charged darkness.

Death brings a new question sharply into the minds of the bereaved: what is a real person? Overnight you’re landed with a sudden, astonishing hybrid, made up of memories and intimate knowledge. One of the things I’ve noticed about bereavement is how the past spreads itself now across my everyday reality in a more concerted way than before, with two impossible beings occupying my middle distance. They are mythological, time-traveling creatures, who appear in different forms and hail from different decades, brown-haired one minute, gray the next. They mow the lawn, read the paper or stand at a long-gone kitchen counter, as though nothing bad had ever happened. These fantastic companions become, in one sense, the most real people you experience. For unlike an encounter with the living, there is no external reality against which to judge your perceptions. As a character in one of Mavis Gallant’s short stories says, “the only authentic voices I have belong to the dead.”

*

In these last few years, while I’ve been navigating this new personal reality, the questions of how we experience the real world, how we access its truths, have become mainstream concerns. On January 16th, 2018, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, US Senator Orrin Hatch began his statement by taking off a pair of glasses that he wasn’t wearing. He raised both hands up beside either eye, clipped them around invisible handles and brought them back down to the bench. He continued as if this were normal, with perhaps just one nervous little cough registering the mistake. The moment was like a Lucille Ball slip-up, a clown’s attempt at gravitas. At the same time, it instantly seemed a perfect symbol of our present state of affairs: the unreality of American politics in the wake of its reality-TV president, the deception of the political classes who no longer even feel the need to disguise their deceptions.

The international laughter that followed this footage stemmed both from its pure comedy and from a kind of demented relief. Levels of incredulity, skepticism and distrust in reality as it is presented to us have become constant features of contemporary life. In the last few years we have become primed to ask ourselves: Is this real or not? The judging of an event’s “realness” or “fakeness” is often prioritized, more urgent than: Is this right or wrong? An ex-YouTube engineer, Guillaume Chaslot, tells us that, when it comes to how the website’s algorithm promotes fake versus legitimate videos, “fiction is outperforming reality.” YouTube formally rejects the methodology of this analysis. So who do we believe? Do we have time to scour the data ourselves?

Senator Orrin Hatch raised both hands up beside either eye, clipped them around invisible handles and brought them back down to the bench.

A 2018 study of Twitter, published in the journal Science confirms fears that our realities are being warped by our love for the novel and the strange over the authentic. The study found that “Falsehoods diffused significantly further, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories,” such as political, scientific or financial information. The very word “Russia” evokes not only a nation, but an amorphous global influence that looks to erode the lines between reality and falsehood. And so, in this relentless, unwanted game of sorting out the fraudulent from the genuine, Senator Hatch’s glasses felt like a nice, easy warm-up for a new year of dogged scrutiny. “Those are definitely not glasses.” Everyone was happy to have a trick question, in which the trick was as plain and unobscured as the nose on his face.

If in the last few years we have started to talk regularly and explicitly about reality as an idea in itself, what do we mean by it? What constitutes our sense of a real world? Despite its elusiveness, reality isn’t the most retiring of subjects—it touches every domain of human enquiry. Science has sought to build models for an objective reality, the laws of which need to be verifiable. Politics deals in the fragile amalgam of shared assumptions, values, prohibitions and freedoms that makes civic reality a possibility.

The nature of reality is a fundamental philosophical question. I’m especially interested here in phenomenology, the branch of philosophy that focuses not on what is real, but rather on how we gain a sense of reality from our perceptions. It seeks to understand our conscious experiences as real things in themselves. So what are the specific phenomena that most influence our current relationship to reality, as well as our experiences of inhabiting a reality that we’re continually told is somehow compromised? What does it feel like to be responsible for generating a sense of reality in a culture that accuses itself of being fictional?

While it may feel that we are living in a period of particular skepticism, it is hard to think of a time in Western history in which people lived in full harmony with an idea of the real world. There has always been doubt about, or dissatisfaction with, our everyday surroundings, as though there could be another reality that is truer, more everlasting than what our senses can perceive. Plato, who can be counted on for some foundational snapshots, likened our perceptions to seeing only the shadows of things, cast against the wall of a cave. Enlightenment comes from breaking the bonds holding you in this shadow-theater and emerging from the cave into the realm of realities.

Many centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche called Plato “a coward in the face of reality,” because for the German philosopher reality has always been in front of us, with all its shadowy terrors of indeterminacy, misapprehension and illusion. Plato couldn’t handle the dark cut-and-thrust of our shadow-world, said Nietzsche, and so he fled into the realm of ideals and enduring, pure forms. In The Twilight of the Idols, written in 1888, Nietzsche devotes a mischievous page to suggesting “How the Real World Finally Became a Fable”. In a sweeping six-point guide he proposes that, in the main phases of Western thought since Plato, our access to the real world went from being attainable only to the wise (the enlightened few who left the cave) to being attainable to no one. As both a spiritual and philosophical concept, reality retreated further and further from our view as the years rolled on. As a result, the real world became an idea that, through its sheer unknowability, had “no further use”.

Nietzsche subtitled this progression “The history of an error”—the error being the belief in a ‘true ’ world as separate from the one that appears to us. Nietzsche wanted his society to return its focus to this “apparent” world, which had somehow been lost in the impossible pursuit of a true, metaphysical reality beyond human perception. In prizing an absent, unreachable reality, he said, we have thrown out the reality that has always been in plain view. All we have, and all we can know, he insisted, is how the world appears to us. To consider whether these appearances are real or not is to ask the wrong question of them.

We can hear loud echoes of Nietzsche’s plea to remember appearances in the latest scientific research into our perceptions, which asks similar questions about our ability to experience a single, “true” reality. One of the biggest problems facing current neuroscience is that of understanding how we come to be conscious. Our eyes aren’t just spotless windowpanes through which our consciousness—whatever that might be—peers into the world. The neuroscientist Anil Seth reminds us of an obvious but mostly overlooked truth: our brains can’t see, or hear or taste. They sit in the dark, making up a world informed by electrical stimuli from our sense organs. The act of perception, Seth argues, is an act of prediction, of estimation. What we consciously perceive is our brain’s “best guess” at what the outside world is like.

Our eyes aren’t just spotless windowpanes through which our consciousness—whatever that might be—peers into the world.

These guesses, of course, can be wrong. There are all sorts of visual tricks to show how easily our eyes can be deceived—often to do with seeing three-dimensional cubes in a two-dimensional image, or with our perception of color. Seth illustrates the falsity of our vision by showing how two different squares on the picture of a chess board can seem like two completely different shades of grey, when in fact they are the same shade.

This idea of the brain as a “prediction engine” changes the balance of where we think our sense of reality comes from. “The world we experience,” Seth argues, “comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in.” We rely on sensory data gathered from our external surroundings, but our brains then actively interpret this data into conscious experiences that Seth calls “controlled hallucinations”. It ’s companionable to think that most of the time our internal estimations of the outside world are compatible with those of other people. Our brains’ predictive processes aren’t totally idiosyncratic; there is much shared ground. As Seth puts it, “When we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.”

There are, of course, moments when our shared hallucinations falter, such as the famous case of that dress, which people either saw as white and gold or blue and black. This cause célèbre, which sent rifts running through families and groups of friends, was so funny and agitating because it revealed the instability of our perceptions. If you saw the dress one way, it was difficult really to see how it could appear as the other. The colors seemed as evident and inarguable as the red on a fire engine. If you were, like me, in the white-and-gold camp, it could be easy to let ungenerous thoughts form about those blue-and-blackers. Their reality cast an uneasy shade on ours. For a few days we were in the thrall of a tiny morality play—about difference, perspective, the truth of “the other”—woven into a meme.

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From Picnic Comma Lightning: The Experience of Reality in the Twenty-First Century. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Laurence Scott.

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